Detroit The Red Sox hit the Tigers everywhere it hurt, from the mound to the mouth. They struck quickly and held on, and now the Tigers' wounds are visible again, and time is running out.
They'll feel this ache for a while, from the home-plate collisions to the wasted chances. All night long, they were scrambling back, one elusive hit away. And in the end, the Red Sox's 4-3 victory Thursday night was a snapshot of a series that's all about razor-thin margins.
The Tigers have been here before, but getting out of this jam will be their biggest test yet. They trail the American League Championship Series 3-2 with the next two games in Boston, and if they ever needed their pitching aces, now is the time. Miguel Cabrera isn't getting better and neither is Alex Avila, who departed with a strained left knee. Neither is Prince Fielder, still struggling mightily with a strained swing. He was booed his final two at-bats as the crowd hungered for a hitting hero.
It didn't happen, and if Comerica Park is to be filled again this season, the Tigers will have to shake the pain. These games keep coming down to one swing and one pitch, and for the Tigers, it comes down again to the arms of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. The Tigers trailed the A's 2-1 in the first round and won two straight elimination games. Having Scherzer and Verlander Scherlander for the weekend certainly provides hope, but can someone provide a key hit?
The Tigers are showing conflicting signs (literally), and it cost them. In the first inning, they were threatening against Jon Lester with two runners on, two outs. Jhonny Peralta drilled a base hit to leftfield, and as the crowd stood, a 1-0 lead beckoned.
Except it was the hobbled Cabrera chugging around third, where third-base coach Tom Brookens initially waved him in, then put up the stop sign. Cabrera didn't stop, and it doesnt really matter if he could or couldn't because of his injury. It was the wrong move by Brookens to even consider sending him, and Cabrera was out by several feet.
Brookens and Cabrera both tried to take the blame, but this is where the Tigers are right now, trying to score runs in the most arduous way.
"With two outs, you want to be aggressive, and (Brookens) wants to be aggressive too," Cabrera said. "You gotta try to find a way to score. Not to blame anybody here at the last second he stop me, and I see it. I couldnt stop and I keep going."
In the home-plate collision, Cabrera also appeared to tweak his groin injury, and the Tigers' pain grew. In a one-run loss, that first lead would have been huge, which is why Brookens pushed it too hard, and why the Tigers are stuck in a deficit.
"(Brookens) was waving and probably stopped him a little late," manager Jim Leyland said. "With Miggy right now, you've got to stop him. There was nothing Miggy could do. It's pretty rough for him right now, and it was just one of those unfortunate things."
The Tigers' threat was over and the Red Sox's threat was just starting, and this is what wounded the Tigers too their fabled pitching got dinged. Anibal Sanchez didn't have anything close to his near-no-hit stuff of Game 1 and the Red Sox popped him for a 4-0 lead. As good as the Tigers' pitching has been, the Red Sox possess baseball's highest-scoring offense. So you knew it could come to this, to a moment when one of the Tigers' sluggers would have to match the power.
It isn't happening consistently, not at the right moments. In the seventh inning, the Tigers trailed 4-2 and had runners on first and third with nobody out, a classic Cabrera moment. It was gone on a double-play grounder, and although he doesn't like to talk about it, Cabrera's leg strength has been sapped by the injury.
"I gotta go out there and play my best game," Cabrera said. "No time to complain, no time to feel sorry about how you're feeling."
That's not an excuse, and there isn't one for Fielder's anemic production, still without an RBI in the postseason. Lester was tough and so was the Red Sox bullpen, but there were breaking points Thursday night and the Tigers couldn't break through. Here was a revived Austin Jackson, getting on base again and again, except for a rally in the sixth inning, when he grounded into a double play.
There were figurative stop signs everywhere, although not for Red Sox slugging first baseman Mike Napoli. His thundering home run in the second inning traveled 460 feet into the third level of greenery in centerfield for a 1-0 lead. The Tigers did something similar the night before, their offense awakening in a 7-3 victory, and they appeared to be in decent shape then. But of course, this series changes shape radically from one game to the next.
Later in the second, Cabrera booted a grounder for an error, which helped continue what could end up as the most-damaging inning of the postseason for the Tigers. The Red Sox scored three, and even when the Tigers made the right play, it hurt. David Ross tried to score from third on a ground ball and Omar Infante's throw easily beat him. But Ross barreled into Avila and knocked him down, so while the Tigers got the out, the Red Sox got the impact.
Avila twisted his knee and was removed two innings later. He said afterward he thought he'd be able to play Saturday, but between the collisions and foul balls off his mask, he's been beaten down. It was that kind of night for the Tigers, pain increasingly evident. This usually is the pivotal game of a tight series, and with the final two in Boston even with Scherzer and Verlander ready to go it was especially crucial for the Tigers.
"You gotta feel good when you have the best pitchers in your rotation going," Victor Martinez said. "They've both been there before. We still like our chances."
The Red Sox are in better shape in a lot of places except on the mound. The Tigers still have a path out of this, and their pitching has rescued them before. But as they just witnessed, trying to scratch out precious runs is a painful way to play.